Thursday, February 08, 2024
A threshold theory on game graphics
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is said. In video games there is definitively a choice made by developers on the art style. If you like for example a manga art style very much, and want to play a CRPG, Persona 3 Reloaded might be a good choice. If you dislike manga, the same game with the same mechanics will probably appeal a lot less to you. Having said that, imagine you had a series of collages, each of which shows a selection of typical screenshots from the hottest video games of the year, for each of the years from the 70's to today. You would definitely be able to see an evolution in *technical* graphics quality. Resolutions got higher, user interfaces got more user friendly, and when going beyond screenshots, animations got more realistic. You can't confuse Baldur's Gate 1 from 1998 with Baldur's Gate 3 from 2023. In Civilization I from 1991, units and cities were 2-dimensional squares, while in Civilization VI from 2016 the graphics are a lot more detailed for every unit and building.
If you were given that series of collages I described above from the years 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020, you would be able without actually knowing the games to sort them in the right chronological order. Standards evolve over time, which is why so many game developers flipped out last year when Baldur's Gate 3 threatened to raise the standards by a lot, making their jobs a lot more difficult. Different people are more or less sensitive to graphical standards, and different genres of video games are more or less susceptible to these standards. Some people like games with 8-bit pixel graphics, although I would argue that even those have gotten prettier over the decades. We give indie games more leeway with graphics than we would give a triple-A game, and a turn-based strategy game doesn't have to be as pretty as a first-person shooter.
Having said all that, I do think that people individually and collectively develop a certain threshold for graphical quality. If a game's graphics fall below the expected threshold, players and reviewers are going to make remarks about that. A typical example were the faces in Starfield, with their blank stares, which didn't meet the general threshold of expectation for a 2023 role-playing game. This week I observed a heated discussion between various reviewers and fans about Millennia, where especially the combat animations fall well below the general threshold of what people expect, even in a less demanding genre like 4X strategy games. Basically, if you want to make a historical 4X game that wants to compete with the already not-so-fresh-anymore Civilization VI, you can't use unit graphics that are more reminiscent of Civilization III.
I'm not saying that this is necessarily a good thing. If you have an extremely low threshold for graphical quality, you obviously will be able to enjoy a lot more games. For example my threshold is keeping me from playing Dominions 6, although by all accounts the gameplay is excellent. For Millennia I was able to overcome my threshold and see that there is some real depth in the gameplay, but it takes over 2 hours to get to that point. An ugly game always risks that a part of their customers have refunded the game before getting that far. We might bemoan that as another sign of the times, where superficial looks are more important than deeper values; but it is something that game developers and publishers need to be mindful of: If you produce a game under the generally acceptable graphical threshold, you won't be selling that many copies.